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Black Dog - Chapter 23

Up at the top of the graveyard, close to the woods, a low wooden fence marked off a corner of pitifully small plots with far more flowers and messages, bright and jarring in contrast to the sombre graves on the lower slopes. A small procession headed towards them as sky darkened to a deep royal blue, moths looping and flitting in the twilight.

Verity, at the fore, picked her way through the long grass, the green blades bowing before her pointed black boots.

Imogen drifted behind her. The years had peeled back, her white hair turned to chestnut again, her figure too slender, back in age when the guilt and shame had been raw.

Olivia came last, carrying the jar.

At a small empty space close to the edge of the graveyard two figures stood, deep in conversation: the one with wings holding a book to his chest; the one without, leaning heavily on a wooden shovel. The angel's wide black-feathered wings sheltered their low voices, and they fell silent as the funeral procession drew close. Verity gave Reverend Milton an unfriendly look as they met, but she kept her mouth shut for Imogen's sake. She dabbed at her eyes with a lacy handkerchief (taking care not to smudge her eyeliner) as Olivia handed the jar to the vicar, and the witnesses stood together in a moment of silent respect.

A loud cawing from a nearby tree shattered the silence, a huge crow looking down on the ceremony with baleful black eyes. Eli muttered something under his breath that didn't sound like English, and Verity gave a brief nod, her eyes fixed on the bird.

"We disturbed the remains," she said. "We ought to get this done quickly."

Reverend Milton's brow furrowed into deep lines of worry. "Perhaps this isn't the best place."

Verity shook her head. "A proper burial might settle things. Sooner rather than later," she added, with an imperious look at the angel.

Olivia asked no questions, for fear of the answers. There would be no official headstone for the grave, but Reverend Milton had assured Imogen that there would be a marker, and that the site would not be disturbed. He insisted on giving the full unabridged funeral service, too.
As the calm quiet voice washed over her, Olivia realised guiltily that her mind was wandering, her eyes glazing. She felt uncomfortably detached from Imogen's grief. While she naturally felt sad for Auntie Imogen and all that she'd gone through, the mournful young woman swaying slightly at the graveside was not any Auntie Imogen Olivia had ever known, she was a figure from old photographs. The child itself, that had never even had the chance to become a baby with ten perfect fingers and toes and a burbling laugh, had died sixty years ago, long before Olivia's own birth.

As in the days following the accident, a heavy lethargy had descended upon Olivia, like a dense wet fog that sapped her strength and her newly regained energy. Reverend Milton gently lowered the jar into the small deep hole in the ground, and Olivia looked up to see Eli still leaning on the shovel, watching her. Thoughts of chasing him away seemed more ludicrous than ever.

After the service, Imogen lingered at the graveside, but it seemed the decent thing to do to leave her to a private moment. Olivia turned to leave, and Verity followed reluctantly. When Olivia glanced back over her shoulder, she could have sworn that just for an instant she saw the figure of a child sitting in the tree where the crow had been, staring resentfully down at Imogen and the grave.


Imogen discovered the kitten on the way back, in the garden, close to the shed. It was no more than six weeks old, small enough to curl up in the palm of one hand if she'd been able to hold it at all, and it was dead. Imogen crouched in the wet grass, fingers hovering inches from the damp orange fur, ghostly tears streaming silently down her face. It was one of the youngest of the Marmalade dynasty, she was certain of that, but she couldn't tell what had killed the poor mite: rat poison, perhaps, or antifreeze. Imogen couldn't help but feel she was being punished all over again by a cruel and vengeful God.

She sensed rather than heard somebody approach, and pause, but she didn't look up and didn't wipe her eyes.

A pair of scuffed and muddy boots came into view, stopping by the dead kitten.

"It's not fair," Imogen whispered.

Eli knelt opposite her, lifting the limp figure gently from the wet earth. It was so tiny in his hands. "So," he said. "Want her buried?"

With her eyes transfixed upon the kitten, she didn't raise her head to meet his gaze. "You could always…" She cleared her throat. "You could always bring her back." The silence that followed was not filled with promise. "I've always been a good friend to you, haven't I?" she pressed.

"Talked about that before," he said at last. "Didn't we?"

She nodded. "I was nine. That was the first time, wasn't it? The grey cat..." whose name she could no longer recall, but she could remember an evening not unlike this one, a little girl not unable but unwilling to touch a body that had turned cold in the evening chill. He hadn't been called Eli then, or Constantin, but he'd looked much the same. "It's not so difficult, is it?" There was less venom in her voice than she would have expected, just tiredness and pain. "You never should have let me know you could do it. It was always so much worse, knowing you could if you wanted to."

"Can't bring all of 'em back. House'd be full of zombie cats. Got enough cats as it is."

"I don't care," she growled. "I want my kitten back." She remembered him telling her before that she wouldn't really want any of her cats back from the dead - not the way he brought them back. He said they wouldn't be the same. But surely now it was different, and he could see she loved her ghosts cats as much as she loved any of the live ones.

He stood up. "Over by that window, then? Gets a lot of sun there."

She already knew there wasn't much point arguing with him. She sat down in the grass, small and helpless as a kitten, as a nine-year-old girl, and watched him dig a second too-small grave.

 

 

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